Tyres: They’re All The Same, Right?

A Goodyear EfficientGrip summer tyre
Goodyear EfficientGrip tyre

Modern cars are laden with technical gadgetry designed to improve safety – ABS, ESP, Traction Control, EBD (Electronic Brakeforce Distribution) – the list gets longer each year. Yet despite all of this, your car’s tyres are the one thing that actually connects you to the road and enables you to stay in control of your car.

Given this, why do so many motorists run their tyres down to below the legal limit* and then buy the cheapest possible tyres to replace them?

I was recently invited by Goodyear to find out more about the dangers of budget tyres and worn tyres at one of their tyre safety days at MIRA (a top-secret test facility in Warwickshire). I consider myself fairly knowledgable about tyres, but what I learnt surprised me and I’m sure it will surprise you.

Before I start, I’d like to say that this article is not an attempt to persuade you to buy Goodyear tyres. It’s about understanding that the quality and condition of your tyres make a big difference to your car’s safety and performance – and you lose a lot of safety and performance if you buy the cheapest tyres in the shop.

Budget Tyres: Pay Peanuts, Get Monkeys

Whenever I visit my local fast-fit centre for some new tyres or some other kind of straightforward part replacement, there is always a bit of a wait involved. As I wait, I inevitably get to overhear the conversations between other customers and the staff behind the counter.

As you would expect, many of these conversations involve tyres and almost all of them follow the same pattern:

  1. The customer has no idea about tyres and often doesn’t even know the size they need;
  2. They will rarely ask anything about the tyres on offer except their price – no mention of dry and wet grip, wear, noise or fuel efficiency;
  3. In most cases, the customer will visibly resent having to buy one or more new tyres, often seeing it as a necessary evil that’s required to pass an MOT. At the same time, most of them will be sporting the latest mobile phones and no doubt many will have splashed out £100 or more on a sat nav for their car…

Part of the problem is genuine ignorance. Most people don’t know anything about tyres – and how could they? They all look roughly the same and even the cheapest and nastiest Chinese tyres will pass an MOT – so what’s the problem?

Mercedes with budget tyres skidding on corner
The Mercedes with budget tyres sliding its way around a wet corner...

Premium vs. Budget Tyres: Tested

A trip around the MIRA wet testing track with a Goodyear test driver provided me with a graphic demonstration of just how great the difference is between cheap budget tyres (usually Chinese) and premium tyres (in this case Goodyear, but they could have come from any of the premium tyre brands).

The most obvious difference that will apply to all of us is how they behave under emergency braking. Even the most cautious and sensible driver in the world will have to slam on the brakes occasionally – and having decent tyres could be the difference between breathing a sigh of relief and having a major accident.

Under heavy braking on a wet surface at motorway speeds (a fairly common scenario in the UK), the budget tyres skidded hopelessly. Even the ABS couldn’t save the situation – we were just passengers as the car slid along the road. The difference with the Goodyears was remarkable. They remained glued to the road and brought us to a halt in about two-thirds of the distance required by the budget tyres. This meant we stopped several car lengths earlier than on the budget tyres.

Mercedes cornering well with premium tyres
The Mercedes running Goodyear tyres had no such problems and handled the same corner faster, without sliding

When cornering at speed, it was a similar story – the Goodyears would hold a line solidly around a wet corner when the budget tyres were losing grip and slipping sideways.

While not all of us like to drive fast around corners, I bet that most of you have entered a corner too fast at some point and then tightened the steering, praying that you’ll get round ok. If you’re running budget tyres, your prayers are less likely to be answered…

If you are wondering why there’s such a big difference, consider this. Companies like Goodyear spend millions on designing and testing new rubber compounds, different tread designs and top quality manufacturing. Budget tyre manufacturers don’t bother – that’s why their tyres are cheaper.

Part-Worn Tyres Should Be On The Front

Just because your tyres still have 2mm of tread left and will pass an MOT does not mean that they provide the same grip as new tyres. They won’t: Worn tyres have less grip than new tyres. To keep your car safe when it has a mixture of newer and older tyres, you should always put newer tyres on the rear wheels of your car and put older tyres on the front wheels.

Oversteer vs. Understeer

I’m not going to get too technical about this, but if the tyres at the front of your car have less grip than the tyres at the back, then what will happen sometimes when you are cornering is that the front of your car will run wide.

This is called understeer and is relatively safe – you can usually recover by lifting off the accelerator and slowing down a bit.

VW Golf with four new Goodyear EfficientGrip tyresOn the other hand, if the tyres at the back of your car have less grip, what will happen is that all of a sudden, the back end of your car will lose grip and swing out.

This is called oversteer and will probably result in you losing control and spinning your car completely around. You will probably end up hitting something and causing a collision.

Only very skilled drivers with training and experience can handle oversteer – it definitely is not covered in the driving test. Goodyear let us test this out for ourselves by providing two identical cars – one with new front tyres and worn rear tyres and one with four matched tyres. The car with matched tyres understeered nicely and was easy to control. On the other hand, everyone who drove the car with worn rear tyres managed to spin it on the test circuit.

That’s why the oldest tyres on a car should always be on the front wheels, with the newer tyres on the rear wheels. It doesn’t matter whether your car is front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive or four-wheel drive. By putting your oldest tyres on the front and your newest tyres on the back**, you can guarantee safe, predictable handling in all circumstances.

Tyres – More To Come

I am going to return to the subject of tyres in more detail in future months – not least with a look at the risks of buying part-worn tyres (secondhand tyres) and a reminder about the benefits of winter tyres and all-season tyres.

In the meantime, I would urge you to make sure that the newest pair of tyres on your car are on the rear wheels** and to think twice before buying the cheapest possible tyres next time your car needs some new rubber.

If money is really tight, there are a number of good quality mid-range brands on the market – companies such as Sava, Fulda, Uniroyal, Matador and Semperit which are owned by the top tyre companies, and as such provide decent tyres at a reasonable price.

Remember that tyres make a big difference to your car’s safety and performance – so buy the best tyres you possibly can.

*In a customer survey, fast-fit chain HiQ found that 42% of customers coming in for replacement tyres had existing tyres that were below the legal tread limit of 1.6mm.

**Most cars are front-wheel drive, which means your front tyres will wear out much faster than your rear tyres. When having new front tyres fitted, ask the tyre fitter to swap the front and rear wheels. This shouldn’t cost extra and will only take them a couple of minutes as they will have the car jacked up anyway.

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